ATLANTA - Claude Sitton, 89, a newspaper journalist who set the pace for reporters covering the civil-rights movement in the South in the 1950s and '60s and later won a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, died Tuesday in Atlanta. He had been under hospice care with heart failure.
Mr. Sitton, a Georgia native, began crisscrossing the South for the New York Times in 1958 and became a leading figure among the reporters covering the civil-rights struggle, said Hank Klibanoff, who cowrote The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation.
"What made him the gold standard was that he went where other reporters didn't go, and once he got there they followed," said Klibanoff, former deputy managing editor of The Inquirer and former managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Mr. Sitton had joined the Times after working as a wire-service reporter and for the now-disbanded U.S. Information Agency, serving as a liaison between diplomats and the media. Klibanoff said Mr. Sitton felt determined to give an honest account of the racial struggle in his native South and catapulted the newspaper into a leading role in covering the movement.
"It was not that Claude was some flaming liberal or liberator," Klibanoff said. "He just liked a good story and liked to have it first. And frequently he was reporting on injustice - and they knew, on the civil-rights side, that if the New York Times wrote about it, it would get attention from important people."
In a 1962 article, Mr. Sitton described a voting rights meeting at a church in Terrell County, Ga., that was interrupted when the sheriff and his deputies entered, demanding information. One smacked his heavy flashlight into his palm while another ran his hand over his cartridge belt and revolver. Mr. Sitton opened his account with a direct quote from the sheriff: "We want our colored people to go on living like they have for the last 100 years."
After reading Mr. Sitton's front-page report in the Times, Klibanoff said, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy dispatched a team to Terrell County. They sued the sheriff less than two weeks later.
Mr. Sitton "had both a physical and a mental toughness," Klibanoff said. "He was not going to be intimidated. . . . He felt that as a reporter - certainly as a reporter for the New York Times - it was essential for him to see with his own eyes and not to just be relaying what other people saw."
Mr. Sitton later served as the Times' national editor and went on to become editor of the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. In 1983, his commentary for that newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize.
Former News & Observer managing editor Hunter George said in an e-mail that "Claude was a crusader."
"He had an absolute conviction of right and wrong, justice and injustice. He was a powerful presence, both in the newsroom and in the state," he said.